Miners and their families, credit: D Pearson (uploaded 05/03/2014)
Miners and their families, credit: D Pearson (uploaded 05/03/2014)

As part of our occasional working-class history series, Scott Jones looks back at the 1984-85 miners’ strike and some of its lessons for today

As part of its coverage of the current strike wave, BBC Wales recently interviewed veterans of the 1984-85 miners’ strike to reflect on how current disputes compare to their titanic struggle. One word that stands out is coordination.

The strike began almost 40 years ago in March 1984, when miners in Yorkshire walked out against Tory government plans to carry out a huge programme of pit closures – the start of an all-out war to destroy the coalmining industry, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and pit communities.

The other overriding sentiment is that “we had to fight the fight,” as one says. And the miners, their families, communities and supporters, did heroically for a whole year. Some of the veterans of the miners’ strike still embody this and have taken part in the current strike wave, with former miners working at coalmining museums, PCS and Unison members, in South Wales and Yorkshire walking out.

There was immense solidarity from the trade union movement and the wider working class. But the leaders of other trade unions were found wanting and, along with the right-wing Labour leadership of Neil Kinnock, refused, and failed to join the battlefield.

A war

It was a war in which the Tory government under Margaret Thatcher went to extraordinary lengths, brutally using the full force of the state against the miners, their communities, and supporters.

Nigel Lawson, recently deceased former Tory chancellor, even went as far as admitting that Tory preparation for the dispute was “just like rearming to face the threat of Hitler in the 1930s.” The miners had been at the forefront of trade union struggle in Britain for generations, and in 1972 and 1974 defeated Ted Heath’s Tory government, resulting in him losing power in the subsequent general election when he asked: “Who governs Britain?”, and Britain responded by voting him out!

The Tories returned to power in 1979 under Margaret Thatcher, determined to defeat the unions in order to carry out a vicious programme of cuts and privatisation on behalf of capitalism. This time they prepared for attack on the miners by stockpiling coal, introducing new anti-union laws, and preparing the police to be used against the miners.

The economic claims the Tories put forward in public to justify the closure of the pits are proven to be nonsense when looking at the economic impact of the strike on government finances. The Tories later admitted that it cost nearly £6 billion to win the dispute – £26,000 for each miner! And billions more has been spent in redundancy and benefits payments, or lost in mothballing pits and importing coal instead.

The working class led by the miners showed fantastic, fighting spirit against this onslaught. Over 11,300 miners and supporters were arrested, picket lines were mercilessly attacked by the police but over £60 million was raised for the miners, and warehouses full of food and toys were donated.

The miners’ strike was not only justified but could have been won. Six months into the strike, only six weeks of coal stocks remained as winter approached. It was at this moment that a proposed strike, by the pit supervisors’ union Nacods, threatened to close down the few remaining working pits in the Midlands. Shamefully it did not take place. Nacods settled for a rubbish deal, which the Tories later went back on anyway!

But it was the biggest example during the strike of how crucial solidarity action and coordination is, and how, at all stages of the strike, it could have helped the miners to win. At the time in the pages of the Militant newspaper (forerunner of the Socialist) article after article showed the tremendous struggle and solidarity, but also, we outlined how the dispute could be won. Militant, on a number of occasions, called for a 24-hour general strike in support of the miners. When the South Wales and national NUM funds were threatened with seizure we called for an all-out strike.

Solidarity action

The NUM bravely fought alone for a year as leaders of other unions and the Labour Party tops treacherously refused to deliver coordinated solidarity action that could have resulted in victory for the miners – victory that would have been seen as a win for the whole trade union movement and working class.

Under the leadership of Kinnock, Labour and the right-wing union leaders retreated and compromised with the Tories, bosses, and capitalism. But the left leaders also failed to deliver solidarity action. Conditioned in an era of winning concessions by negotiation and compromise, they were unprepared to match the militancy of the Tories. The miners were victims of this failure.

The miners knew at the time that they were fighting for more than their jobs. Social devastation followed the closures in the coalfields. In a recent oral history of Wales in the second half of the 20th century, ‘Brittle with Relics’, Kinnock acknowledges this, and he should know. Not only was he an MP for a mining town (my hometown of Blackwood!) but he had a hand in the defeat and consequences, and that hasn’t been forgotten. Neither has the struggle in the coalfields; the tens of thousands of ordinary miners who stayed out for a whole year rightly feel pride and are an inspiration to those who have come after them.

But also, the lessons for today’s struggles for current workers and future generations are huge. That, when given a lead, workers will fight, as the recent strike wave has shown. That it is coordinated action that can win demands, defeat new anti-union legislation, and bring down today’s Tory government. And that the working class needs it own party and leaders prepared to fight.

Today’s Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has sacked a frontbencher for speaking out on a picket line, and Labour’s shadow health secretary said of the junior doctors’ strike: “I don’t support the strike”.

That’s why we need a new mass workers’ party to learn the lessons of the past and to fight today’s battles. And the use of all arms of the state machine against the strike in 1984-85 also shows that we need to change society and fight for a socialist future.

Further reading

  • A civil war without guns – the lessons of the 1984-85 miners’ strike by Ken Smith, £7
  • Red Violet – a brief memoir of the 1984-85 miners’ strike by Violet John, £5
  • Ken and Violet were both members of Militant and members of miners’ support groups during the miners’ strike in South Wales
  • Buy from leftbooks.co.uk